This week in terrorism history: March 2-8

Taliban fighter with captured US equipment, shown in a 2017 propaganda film. (Credit: Military Times)

Two days ago, the leaders of the Taliban signed an agreement with the United States designed to end bring to an end a war that the US has been fighting for nearly two decades.

But that was Saturday. Now it’s Monday, and there’s this:

A deadly blast shattered a period of relative calm in Afghanistan on Monday and the Taliban ordered fighters to resume operations against Afghan forces just two days after signing a deal with Washington aimed at ushering in peace.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack at a football ground in Khost in eastern Afghanistan, where three brothers were killed, officials told AFP.

The blast occurred around the same time the Taliban ordered fighters to recommence attacks against Afghan army and police forces, apparently ending an official “reduction in violence” that had seen a dramatic drop in bloodshed and given Afghans a welcome taste of peace.

Whether this will scuttle the agreement, which lays out a timetable for the final withdrawal of all American troops from Afghanistan, or not remains to be seen. But the pact, negotiated without the participation of the Afghan government itself, had already suffered one substantial blow.

Part of the deal calls for the Afghan government to release as many as 5,000 Taliban fighters as part of a prisoner swap in exchange for 1,000 captive members of the Afghan security forces. But on Sunday

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told a news conference in Kabul, Afghanistan, that a prisoner release was not a promise the United States could make, according to The Associated Press. “The request has been made by the United States for the release of prisoners and it can be part of the negotiations but it cannot be a precondition,” said Ghani.

More than 2,400 American service members have been killed in Afghanistan since the United States invaded shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, toppling the Taliban from power and hounding al Qaeda from its camps and hideouts. If the peace deal holds, we could see all 12,000 US troops currently deployed there, and the nearly 7,000 NATO forces, leave once and for all. What happens after that remains anyone’s guess.

Now for this week’s look back.

  • March 2, 2001 — Corbett, OR: Federal and local law enforcement agents, as part of an ongoing probe into a white supremacist group, raid a home, seizing weapons, racist literature, and marijuana growing equipment. They also recover a binder notebook entitled “Army of God, Yahweh’s Warriors” containing what officials call a list of targets that include a local federal building and the FBI’s Oregon offices. 
  • March 3, 1991 — Cappagh, Northern Ireland: The Ulster Volunteer Force carries out a gun attack on a pub in County Tyrone, killing four Catholic men. Some time later the Irish Republican Army (IRA) announces that three of its members had been killed in the attack. The fourth person killed was a Catholic civilian. 
  • March 3, 2003 — Davao City, Philippines: A bomb attributed to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, hidden in a backpack, detonates inside an airport terminal, killing 22 and wounding 148. The organization denies responsibility.
  • March 5, 2018 — Beaver Dam, WI: A 28-year-old food company technician is killed in an explosion at his apartment. Bomb-making materials were subsequently found throughout his home, including a 40 gallons of acetone, a highly volatile substance that is commonly used as a component of terrorist bombs worldwide. Police recover white supremacist materials from the apartment.
  • March 8, 1995 — Karachi, Pakistan: Gunmen kill two US diplomats and wound another. The attack took place as the diplomats were being driven to work at the US embassy. No claim of responsibility was made and suspects were never identified.

Update: Take their minerals

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Back in August I wrote about mercenary tycoon Erik Prince’s proposal to privatize America’s war in Afghanistan.

*Reminder – Prince is the brother of Trump administration Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. He was also implicated in a bizarre secret scheme to open a back-channel line of communication between president-elect Trump and Moscow.*

Today BuzzFeed News posted details of the pitch, including the PowerPoint slides that made up Prince’s presentation. It makes for stunning reading, with a new twist:

Not only was Prince proposing embedding his mercenaries — which he termed “mentors — with indigenous Afghan forces while providing combat air support and other services, he planned to pay for it by mining strategic minerals from the areas he promised to pacify.

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BuzzFeed’s Aram Roston spells out just how lucrative this part of the operation was anticipated to be:

One surprising element is the commercial promise Prince envisions: that the US will get access to Afghanistan’s rich deposits of minerals such as lithium, used in batteries; uranium; magnesite; and “rare earth elements,” critical metals used in high technology from defense to electronics. One slide estimates the value of mineral deposits in Helmand province alone at $1 trillion.

The presentation makes it plain that Prince intends to fund the effort through these rich deposits. His plan, one slide says, is “a strategic mineral resource extraction funded effort that breaks the negative security economic cycle.” The slides also say that mining could provide jobs to Afghans.

When I wrote about this back in the summer, I figured that Prince was planning to fill his company’s coffers with a combination of US and Afghan government money. Instead, and in the best tradition of the East India Company (which apparently served as his inspiration for this scheme), Prince was going to make his money the old fashioned way. By imperial conquest.

I’m shocked Trump didn’t go for it.

Trump’s turn on Afghanistan

Trump is expected to announce more US troops for Afghanistan tonight.
Trump set to announce more US troops for Afghanistan tonight.

 

There is no military solution in Afghanistan, at least not one the United States can impose without incurring tremendous cost, both in human and in more prosaic monetary terms.

In fact the war there has already cost the lives of nearly 2,2000 American service men and women along with nearly 2,000 civilian contractors. More than 20,000 Americans have been wounded in Afghanistan in the 16 years we’ve been fighting there.

And we’ve already spent something north of $800 billion in direct appropriations to fund the ongoing Afghan war. War-related spending, including for construction, weapons procurement, and medical care, amounts to hundreds of billions of dollars more.

So what policy solution will President Trump unveil tonight when he makes his address to the American people? He is expected to announce the deployment of an additional 4,000 US troops to Afghanistan, but to what end?

This won’t tip the military balance, though it may help to forestall a complete collapse on the part of Afghan government forces and delay a return to power by the Taliban.

A negotiated solution would seem the only answer here, but no agreement is viable without the backing of the neighboring Pakistanis, and they will inevitably insist on a power-sharing arrangement that includes the Taliban in some new post-conflict scheme for governing Afghanistan. This is something that the United States is far from keen on but which Pakistan sees as vital to protecting its own interests.

There’s no indication that the Trump administration is prepared to enter into negotiations on terms that Pakistan would accept, let alone the Afghans themselves.

As Paul Waldman points out this afternoon at the Washington Post, Trump is now the third president to face the very same dilemma with the same array of choices before him. And he’s likely to come to the same conclusion as the others:

The status quo stinks.

There is no better way forward.

Let the next guy figure it out.

Whatever he announces, one thing is for sure. Trump’s the president. That makes it his war now.

Mercenaries for Afghanistan?

Erik Prince, future Viceroy of Afghanistan?
Blackwater’s Erik Prince, future Viceroy of Afghanistan?

 

The Trump administration is bandying about the idea of hiring a mercenary army to conquer and pacify Afghanistan on behalf of the United States.

Sounds like a cockamamie idea, but no, the drafters of the plan and the White House officials (Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner) shopping it around are absolutely serious. As Sean McFate, himself a former mercenary (more politely referred to as a private military contractor) writes at The Atlantic:

Not surprisingly, the private-military industry is behind this proposal. Erik D. Prince, a founder of the private military company Blackwater Worldwide, and Stephen A. Feinberg, a billionaire financier who owns the giant military contractor DynCorp International, each see a role for themselves in this future. Their proposal was offered at the request of Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s chief strategist, and Jared Kushner, his senior adviser and son-in-law, according to people briefed on the conversations.

Prince, the brother of Trump cabinet member Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, apparently envisions himself in the role of Viceroy of Afghanistan, concentrating power in his own hands while cutting those meddlesome bureaucrats and politicians back in Washington out of the picture.

As Prince acknowledged in an interview with NPR, the proposal is modeled on the British East India Company, whose private army made possible the imperial conquest of India and then for centuries controlled and exploited it on behalf of the crown. Except, as McFate points out, when the British government had to bail the company out of financial ruin in 1770 and then take over for it entirely in 1874.

As McFate points out, there are obvious pitfalls in turning to mercenaries to solve your military problems. The key one, of course, is that their loyalty is for sale to the highest bidder. So what happens when your rivals offer them a better contract?

This would be little more than garden-variety crazy for this administration except that it comes at a time when President Trump is reportedly angry and frustrated about the what he sees as the failure of his advisers to craft a strategy for “winning” in Afghanistan. As NBC News reported a few days ago, the president’s ire spilled out in classically Trumpian style:

Over nearly two hours in the situation room … Trump complained about NATO allies, inquired about the United States getting a piece of Afghan’s mineral wealth and repeatedly said the top U.S. general there should be fired. He also startled the room with a story that seemed to compare their advice to that of a paid consultant who cost a tony New York restaurateur profits by offering bad advice.

Given this backdrop, it’s no wonder some in the president’s inner circle, and perhaps Trump himself, might be keen to outsource the Afghan war and subsequent occupation.

Outsourcing is, of course, old hat to a business guy like Trump. And using mercenaries instead of American troops would also allow the president to indulge in one of his favorite business practices: stiffing the contractors.